You've been in an auto accident. What should you do next? Your cell was ringing. You looked away for just a moment, then crash!
Does that single inattentive moment mean that the accident is all your fault? Maybe. Maybe not.
You know your side of the story, but you have no idea what the other guy was doing. He could have been speeding, arguing with his spouse or gabbing away on his cell. He could be more at fault than you.
Even minor fender benders can get complicated, but these five tips can help you survive those first crucial post-accident moments.
1. Don't admit fault
In the reaching-for-the-cell scenario, it’s easy to see where a driver might feel legally liable for the accident. But few people know enough about legal issues to make that sort of judgment call.
Spontaneous statements-- “I’m sorry.” “It’s all my fault.”-- could come back to haunt you in a courtroom some day. If you can't stop yourself from saying the wrong thing, bite your tongue or hum a tune. Do anything but admit fault.
2. Call the police
Unless an officer witnesses an accident, his opinion is just that-- an after-the-fact opinion. Still there are a number of reasons to dial 911.
- Your insurance policy may require it.
- An officer can get information the other guy might refuse to give to you.
- A police report formally documents the accident scene.
- A policeman’s opinion on fault holds more weight than yours.
- Police documentation will come in handy if your minor accident becomes a major lawsuit some day.
3. Ask for information
Some drivers might leave the accident scene if they think they can get away with it, so act quickly. Make sure no one is hurt, then get the other guy’s information immediately. Write down the car's make, model and license plate number. Exchange names, addresses, phone numbers, driver’s license and insurance information.
Witnesses can fade into the crowd. Before they get away, ask for names and contact info.
4. Don't move your car
Points of impact, skid marks, and positions of vehicles reveal important accident details. Unless your car is creating a traffic hazard, leave it in place until the police arrive.
If you must move your car, use your cell to snap photos of the cars, points of impact, debris in the streets, intersections, traffic signs and lights.
5. Call your insurance company
Never handle a claim on your own. Paying the other guy’s damages out of your own pocket may keep your rates from rising, but liability situations can spin out of control.
Damages often exceed expectations. Injuries arise weeks later. You might not even know about it until the other guy sues you a year or two later. Report your accident right away and your insurance company can begin protecting your interests immediately.
By the way, National Safety Council 2011 statistics estimate that cell phone usage was a factor in at least 1.6 million auto accidents. Remember that the next time your cell rings while you're driving.